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Plenary Council challenges and opportunities
Published in the Spring edition of The Swag: theswag.org.au
The success of the Plenary Council is seen very differently by
various groups taking very different positions on ecclesiology, sacramental
theology and Christian anthropology. Broadly the two contested positions are
the belief that Vatican II and the synodal church Pope Francis is promoting is
predicated on the equal value of each of the baptised in every aspect of church
life including the area of governance. The other view depends on the
hierarchical nature of the church and a Pope John Paul II view of the unique
role of the ordained to guide and govern.
These are not easily reconciled and indeed may be the death of
the plenary council. The fault lines are already surfacing in the writing
groups. It may be an extreme example, but it is interesting to note that in the
list of those assigned to the group writing the paper on Missionary and
Evangelising, Archbishop Porteous appears, but his name is not amongst the contributors
on the final paper. We are left to wonder why.
Is it that the group failed to listen to the ‘guidance’ of the
bishop on opening up church governance to lay people, ecumenical and multifaith
co-operation, recommendation that women participate at all levels of church
ministry including deaconate or the use of the term ‘LGBT’?
We don’t know what caused the bishop to dissent from the
document but it does sit as a stark reminder of the challenges ahead for those
who think the discernment and consultation process is commonly understood by
all involved. It is shaping up as a power battle despite the language used
We can get an insight into the Bishop Porteous’ thinking from
his Catholic Weekly article, Plenary 2020: the creeping clericalisation
of the laity (April 1, 2020) where he says: It is important to note that when a lay person
takes on an ecclesial role, it is in union with and under the direction of the
ordained ministry. An ecclesial role for the lay person does not exist in its
He goes on: What has in fact occurred within the Church
especially over the past 50 years has been referred to as the ‘clericalisation
of the laity’. This attitude continues to drive current attitudes among some
that lay people should assume more roles of ministry and governance within the
Church. Focus on this goal blurs the fundamental role of the lay person in the
mission of the Church.
And then: The Council [Vatican II] considers that
the primary role of the lay person is to be found in the world, rather than
within the ecclesial environment.
Bishop Porteous believes the layperson’s role is in the world
and not in church governance at all. This is in striking contrast with the
great majority of the most important identified themes of the 220,000 people
involved in the submissions which was analysed by Peter Wilkinson in The
Swag (Winter 2020).
Will the Plenary Council be reduced to a fight for ideas and
the losers walking out on the others? Will the many thousands of hours of
volunteer work by many thousands of lay members be ignored by the ordained at
the Council under the Porteous principle that the laity need guidance from the
bishops to take their rightful place in the world (rather than within the
ecclesial environment)? Let’s hope not.
The opportunities are expressed in the many thousands of
Catholics still engaged in the process believing their voices are valuable and
should be heard. The opportunities are evident in those many women and men who
claim their baptismal status as spirit-filled just as at the first Pentecost
when the Spirit descended on the whole community and the wisdom and gifts of
all were put into service each according to their calling, not their sex, race,
culture, language, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Can the Australian church seize these opportunities to
re-found itself before it’s too late? Time will tell.
In this edition of The Swag there are some
interesting articles to continue your thinking and reflection on gospel centred
prayer and action. Sr Patty Fawkner sgs explores the role of women in the
church; Ed Campion reflects on the Hunters Hill meeting 50 years ago from which
emerged the National Council of Priests; Richard R. Gaillardetz
analyses the Australian Church governance report, The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible
Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia and Peter Griffin unpacks Indigenous Sovereignty.
There is much more. Enjoy the journey through articles about faith, love and
Setting a new course for Catholic priestly ministry
An article published in La Croix International May 2020 by Peter Maher
The readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter talk of a new outpouring of ordained
ministry as a new way emerged to meet the longing of the people to be fed and nourished with gospel compassion and daily bread (Acts 6/1-7). It seems the baptised were called to ministry and had hands laid on them
to meet a need – trained sufficiently for the task and set out immediately to do it.
The second reading (1Peter 2/4-9) affirms the priestly charism in all the baptised calling all to ministry to sing the praises of God who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light
. This is affirmed by baptismal status and nothing more – no extra
laying on of hands required – just get to your ordained
task of leading and enriching the community as a regal, prophetic and priestly people.
A new sense of priesthood emerges
As if to emphasize the radically new idea of priest emerging in the early communities of The Way, Luke adds the touch that in Jerusalem many Jews, and specifically from the priestly cast, abandoned the old idea of a Jewish cultic priesthood and joined the community of Christians now laying hands on many of the baptised thereby normalising priesthood
, radically changing its nature from ‘one set apart to enter the holy of holies to plead on behalf of the people’ to one called to live their baptismal call for a specific role to meet the longing of the community.
The gospel (Jn 14/1-12) reflects on a frightened and unprepared twelve supping with their beleaguered leader and guide who is facing execution. He is garnering them to set a new course for creating a life-giving community unencumbered by the baggage of their religious tradition that left God aloof, judgemental, inaccessible and controlled by gatekeepers or shepherds that sometimes closed gates rather than opened them. Jesus had little good to say about the temple system as he sat opposite it watching the walls swallow up the pennies of widows schooled to believe it would gain them access to the divine.
Jesus threw that out – no more leaders lording it over others or making their power felt in a cruel manipulation and corruption that saw class and privilege oppress the disadvantaged while continuing to line the pockets of the already well-healed. There was to be no more gatekeeping. All are now a chosen, priestly, and consecrated community where hierarchy and class are banished in favour of equality and love in service of one another.
No wonder the twelve talk of their longing in this Sunday’s gospel when they say: ‘we do not know where you are going so how can we know the way?’ They were incredulous that Jesus would trust them to fashion a new religious identity based on his courageous, dare we say dangerous, outbursts against the establishment and its traditions, so unprepared. Why would Jesus think such simple fisherman and tradespeople could carry on without the Master?
Jesus had an answer to that longing and fear in their hearts: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to God except through me. If you know me, you know my God too. From this moment you know God and have seen God.
What! Without the Temple, without the priests, without religious books and laws and structures and prelates and a myriad of rules to guide us. The Jesus answer and the early church answer is a simple YES: I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, they will perform even greater works.
Jesus trusts us if only we be daring enough to be transformed by passion, surprise, creativity and, most of all, love for one another which cries out from the poor, women, refugees, LGBTIQA+ people, and men who are not gifted with celibacy but are called to be believers – all royalty, priests prophets through baptism.
Cunning as serpents and gentle as doves
What image do we need for this remarkable turn of events in our time? Shepherd seems too lame and acquiescent, even in the land once riding on the sheep’s back - Australia. Shepherds in Australia herd thousands of sheep at a time by helicopter and sheep meander millions of parched acres trying to fatten themselves for the slaughter. This doesn’t approach anything like the biblical image for me.
Maybe there is a biblical image more appropriate for today - we need communities full of diverse gifts and ministries where leaders and ministers are as cunning as serpents and as gentle as doves regardless of their gender, marital status, diverse gender identity or sexual orientation, disability, cultural or language background.
We need people alive and awake to the forgotten, silenced, hurt, alone, discriminated against and afraid. We need folk who can articulate the joy and pain of human vulnerability in such ways that facilitate gatherings of storytelling with word and sacrament in modalities that inspire a new story, dance or song. We are the baptised incredulous that Jesus would trust us to gather others around us and inspire one another to be liberated in dangerous ways that connect our lives to the hope and challenge of the Jesus story so that we are transformed and self-actuated to be more awake to the reality of those around us and less blind to the injustice and inequality that leaves some crying for bread while others are exhausted by their unhealthy wealth and its corresponding emptiness.
We need the kind of presbyters that Peter and Paul ‘ordained’ and that the bishops of Vatican II decreed to be restored, not sacerdotal judges ontologically changed through ordination to emphasise the gap between God and people that can only be bridged by ‘priestly magic’.
We have in recent times, it seems, tried to restore something more akin to the ancient sacrificial religious cults - the very thing Jesus and the bishops of Vatican II called us to put behind us. The restorationist blindness of the last 40 years on ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic tradition has to change not just for survival, although that is now a real risk, but to be faithful to the Gospel, to our prophetic calling and to reaffirm the biblical call of the priestly charism of all the baptised. Our present path is not only denying people the wonder of the Eucharistic presence wherever two or three or 200,000 meet in Jesus name over a table of bread and wine, but worse, letting them think Jesus’ promise is unattainable. There is a real heresy in the trend to return to the sanctuary pietism of sacerdotalism and the trappings of clericalism.
Can we chart a new course with all the daring of the gospel and the challenge of Vatican II? Vatican II bishops chose to call the document on priestly life and ministry Presbyterorum ordinis
emphasising the New Testament notion of priestly ministry as service by presbyters or leaders of community in worship and acts of kindness and justice. By 1979, Pope John Paul II’s first Holy Thursday Letter to Priests
had already reverted to the emphasis being on the sacerdotal
, emphasising the sacrificial, sanctuary model of the Tridentine tradition. The direction of Vatican II has yet to be tried, although we must recognise the constant efforts of Pope Francis to critique the dangers of the sacerdotal ‘one set apart’ model of clericalism, exclusivity, judgementalism, power over, corruption and sexual abuse.
It’s a task of ‘titanic’ proportions to turn this overloaded heavy Catholic sacerdotal ship around or even to avoid the now clear and present danger of sinking as we scrape alongside the iceberg of complacency and the cult of culture warriors who invoke victimhood and discrimination against the establishment. Jesus only used those terms to unmask the hypocrisy of the establishment and their entrenched power elites.
A new course is essential and we need all the leaders and ministers we can ‘ordain’ to begin pulling the levers and hauling up anchors so we can set sail in a new direction where no one is excluded from the priestly, regal and prophetic community on board the Catholic ark. Let’s set sail with a new vision where each can fulfil their God-given giftedness without prejudice. Let’s imagine and create a ship with an ordained
community of the baptised – hands laid on, if necessary, for commissioning some community tasks, based on the kaleidoscope of diversity in age, gender, spirituality, training, sexuality, marital status and different abilities.